Lynn McGee is the author of the poetry collection, Sober Cooking (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016), and two award-winning poetry chapbooks: Heirloom Bulldog (Bright Hill Press, 2015) and Bonanza (Slapering Hol Press, 1996). Her poems have appeared in many journals, including The American Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Review, Ontario Review, Phoebe, Storyscape, Painted Bride Quarterly and The New Guard. Her poem “Jupiter and Chaparral” appears in Potomac Review #61, and is from her new manuscript, Tracks.
The following interview was conducted over email during fall 2017, by Vida Branco.
Could you tell us about the events that inspired some of the poems in Sober Cooking?
I wrote Sober Cooking during the time I was excluded by the family of a lover from visiting her in the hospital, when she was admitted for heart failure and experienced a stroke, eventually receiving a heart transplant. Knowing she was alone in a hospital bed for months, unable to speak or move—and I couldn’t go to her—was a horrifying reality. Also during those months, my father died, and in his last few weeks, my mother had three strokes that she recovered from.
I was then living in Brooklyn, and working at a college in lower Manhattan. I forged through that winter pretty well, maintaining competency at work and so on, but it took its toll. Often when I was walking home in the snow from the subway, I would stand at the curb staring up at a tree, noticing something like the red and green lights from the deli reflecting off its branches or the icicles on an awning, and miss my chance to cross when the light turned. Sometimes I would stand through several cycles of the light before I mustered enough focus to cross the street.
What saved me—and this is the part of this story that really matters—was grounding myself in observations of the physical world, and somehow in that process, I made meaning out of what seemed like a senselessly cruel time. Everyone goes through those times, so I hope that’s a useful thing to share. It also might be useful for me to say that the work that came out of that period in my life focused not on death and sadness but instead, on the love I felt for my partner, the love I have for my family, and the great appreciation I have for the mysterious gifts we receive just by being conscious in the world.
What is your writing process like? For example, is it more a matter of self-discipline or waiting for inspiration to strike?
I’m going to answer your question about process by talking about logistics, because making a space in our lives for writing is the first step in writing. Most writers that I know participate in the economy in a way that keeps them housed and fed but it makes demands on their spirit and finite energy. I have deep admiration for writers who are juggling adjunct teaching jobs or other demanding work. I know two poets who are single mothers with children who have special needs, and somehow they support their families and love their kids and still have a thriving fine arts writing career.
As for me, I’m lucky to be employed and have health insurance and all that, thanks to a pretty hectic job as a communications manager in a college. My daily commute on the subway is kind of arduous, so I try to maximize those windows of time when my energy peaks. One such window opens in the morning, when my brain is “fresh”—so I have a habit of editing hard copies of poems on the downtown local, stuffing papers back into my backpack when I switch to the express and then getting them out again, if I’m lucky enough to get a seat. Then at night, once I’m back home, I enter those changes and print the revisions, which I continue to edit the next day.
Sometimes instead of writing on hard copies on the train, I edit on my laptop. In fact I’m writing this now, on my laptop on the uptown 2 train. A woman across from me, who has shaved her eyebrows, is drawing them back on with an eyebrow pencil. She touches the tip of the pencil to her tongue between strokes and holds a small mirror in her other hand. She doesn’t realize the man next to her is watching in a sidelong way. He’s holding a bunch of flowers wrapped in paper in a plastic bag, on the floor between his knees. And this is what I do; revere these vignettes of daily life. It’s the central narrative thread of my new manuscript, Tracks.
As for the nuts and bolts of process, another option is document apps on my phone, but I find they limit my sense of line break to the width of a smart phone, and that’s not good. (Flashback: When I was an MFA student, at Brooklyn College then Columbia, I worked for Allen Ginsberg, and one of my tasks was transcribing his spiral notebooks onto his first computer, a little MacIntosh, if I’m remembering correctly. Anyway, one day he looked over my shoulder and noticed that the screen width was causing the lines to “break” where he hadn’t intended. This was an eye opener.)
To wrap up this too-long answer to your question about process, I’ll say that if I start to generate a new poem through handwritten notes on the train, I’ll just put those notes away till it’s the weekend when I can sleep in, space out and spend as time as I want, looking out the window or taking long, long bike rides—in other words, slowly coming back to myself. In that state of mind, I can coax the fragments into gestating into a poem—or not. They don’t all make it to viability. There have to be interesting mistakes, to get to something someday that can live outside the womb of imagination.
I love the title Sober Cooking. Does it carry implications that there is danger in cooking while intoxicated?
Thanks, I’m glad you like the title. No, it’s not about cooking while intoxicated—not in the least. It’s more about sobriety in the sense of staying grounded during a crisis, by connecting to the daily tactile, sensual and ordinary experiences of our lives, like chopping vegetables or tending to a pot simmering on the stove. You know how it goes—life reveals its beauty to us, in unexpected ways.
Here’s an example. I heard Margaret Ellsberg give a talk on Gerard Manly Hopkins at the Hudson Valley Writers Center last summer, and she described an incident that happened when he was teaching in a boys’ school in Ireland. I think he had left the building for a while and when someone when to look for him, they found him standing at an outhouse, staring at the urine spatters crystallized on the rough wood wall, a spectacular display of light and color, and apparently, it transfixed him—that’s how open he was, how connected he felt to beauty in any form and of course, his beliefs about god were in play, too.
Since Peggy’s talk—and I recommend her book, by the way, The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins, Plough Press—I have thought a lot about that openness, how it can neutralize a poet’s moral judgment or bias as to what is moving or significant. I’m certainly not able to reach Hopkins’ ecstatic level of acceptance, but I try to be open, to shift my focus off my own preoccupations and be grateful for the concrete world we are made from and are part of. And that is a sobering experience.
You explore some difficult themes, such as heartbreak, sickness, and death in your most recent book. Do you find it difficult to publish these works? Do you ever feel inclined to keep them only for yourself?
I never feel inclined to keep poems only for myself, though I am their first audience and they serve a purpose with me that might not be the purpose they serve with others who read them.
As for finding it difficult to publish these works—no, I don’t mind sharing them. Even a deeply personal poem becomes something else, once it’s written. It’s not a journal entry or a letter. It starts within me but ends up outside of me, an object I can hold up to the light for others to see, if they’re interested.
Likewise, when I read other people’s work, I’m most attracted to poems that also derive from a place of feeling and empathy, not from semantic cleverness, which has its place, but doesn’t move me or draw me in.
Do you think about who your reader may be, or who the ideal reader is? Is the ideal reader ever someone in your poems?
That’s an interesting concept, but no, I have never considered the existence of an ideal reader. There is sometimes a “you” in my poems, but that “you” is not the intended audience. I have to admit, since I first start a poem in order to process or explain something to myself I guess I am my own “ideal audience” (as a poet, I sometimes joke that we are our best and only audience!). The problem the poem solves, the unfinished dialogue it completes, the details of the world it documents all help me understand why we love, why we exert power over one another, why we destroy and build back up.
I find that sharing my poetry makes me feel vulnerable. Do you think this is why some writers stop writing? Are certain poems, at times, too difficult to return to/publish?
I don’t know why other writers stop writing. Just speaking for myself, if I stop writing it’s because I’m going through a dark time that I’m making worse by isolating myself and doing nothing to counteract the numbness. Ironically, what you might be thinking of as the most painful-to-write poems in my books are actually the most cathartic, the most satisfying and healing poems, the ones where the images carry the emotional thread in a natural way.
As a writer, I have found satisfaction in the moments immediately following a composition, but the feeling evaporates quickly because that gratification is gone. Can you relate to this? I am assuming that you’re going to say tenacity is important in the art of writing?
When a poem is in process, especially in the first ten or so drafts I carry around with me everywhere I go, I feel like I’m in a mild state of agitation that settles into calmness and even relief, once it’s finished. I’ve also learned that poems aren’t always complete when I think they are. But you’re right, tenacity is important, and it takes different forms for different people.
What has surprised you about the process of publishing your work that you did not expect at the start of your career?
Every time I get published, I feel awe. I’m not sure what has surprised me the most—maybe that people who didn’t know me, would give me breaks and show interest in my work. My first chapbook, Bonanza, won the Slapering Hol Press contest in 1996, which I heard about through an ad in Poets and Writers magazine.
Sober Cooking happened because I read some of the poems at Cornelia Street Café in the West Village and Nava Renek, then editor of Spuyten Duyvil Press, was in the audience. She asked if the work was part of a larger manuscript and I said it was, and sent it to her. Honestly, I completely forgot about having met her, after that—you get so many come-ons, if you’re a poet, and they almost never pan out, so you start to just celebrate that moment of validation and forget there might actually be something beyond it. Three months later, when I got her email saying they wanted to publish the manuscript, I couldn’t believe it! The biggest breaks I’ve had, happened through the slush pile or through a stranger.
How has your relationship with rejection, in terms of writing, changed throughout the years?
I am pretty impervious to rejection from strangers. I cross off that entry in my submission log and immediately start browsing journals for a new place to send that work.
It feels more awkward to me when the person doing the rejecting is someone I’ve met or know personally, but I brace myself and submit to them anyway. Rejection is a tool, in that it tells you that you need to think more about what would be appropriate homes for your work or which poems are just not communicating what you think they are—but not always.
And sometimes rejection has nothing to do with your work. Many journals receive thousands of submissions a year. I sometimes get work back so quickly, it’s obvious the submission was just processed immediately into a reject pile.
A Facebook friend, Michele Leavitt, is doing something brilliant, which is to set a goal for herself to get 100 rejections in 2017. In the process, she had had at least one, and I’m guessing many more than that, acceptances. She is setting an example for us all, sending the message that getting rejected is just a path—long or short—to getting published. We are not victims of rejection! We are in control of rejection. We orchestrate its frequency. We modulate the number of our acceptances, accordingly.
Are there any habits, again in terms of writing, that you would like to break? Any habits you would recommend novice writers adopt?
I recommend to new writers, don’t try to write in a vacuum! Find a small group of poet acquaintances you respect, and exchange feedback with each other. I can’t imagine putting together a manuscript without having lain bare the poems in their early forms, with my writing group (Susana Case, Myra Malkin and Elizabeth Haukaas). They know my voice and work, so their comments are not intended to lead the poem into sounding more like theirs or toward some ideal that isn’t mine. And we don’t mince words.
Everyone also says, read other poets, and I will second that one, big time. And go to readings; those of your peers, those of your friends, those of famous poets and those of people you’ve never heard of. Poems often start for me, when I’m at readings. In particular I am thinking of what happens when I am listening to Gerry LaFemina or Jennifer Franklin read their work. The poems hold me in their thrall and then a seemingly unrelated epiphany will pop up for me, apparently triggered by the feelings their work evokes. It’s the cadence of Gerry’s work and shattering, subtle truths that make that happen for me, and it’s Jennifer’s searing honesty and crisp control of language that put me in a place where words will rise from some pocket of feeling and insist on getting my attention when I get home.
Last night I heard Marie Howe read at the Hudson Valley Writers Center and a single line arose for me, inspired by her luminous, emotionally brilliant poems. Driving home to the upper Bronx, I had a good half hour to repeat the line and add to it, reciting the growing poem in my car. When I got home, I typed a draft on my computer. (I guess I could have used voice recognition to make a Notes entry on my phone, but that’s probably a bad idea on the Sawmill Parkway!) Now I’m remembering that that’s what I did when I lived in Los Angeles—I would work on poems in my car, reciting and revising them. When I moved to New York, I had to get used to the silent revision process that takes place on the train. I guess we just use what we’ve got, wherever we are.